Pressure… and blood. The two words kept pinballing around Clara’s mind with each jostle and bounce of the car’s tired chassis. Pressure and blood.
Blood was one thing. Blood was a recurring dream of a closed door at the end of a long, narrow white hallway. Hospital white. The door was a darker shade, like it hadn’t been painted in a long time. The knob was a pristine gold. It glinted in the dream. The door rumbled and bulged as something behind it thudded against it; a noise that followed her into wakefulness. Thrack! Thrack! Thrack!
With each percussive thud, a tiny fleck of red flicked off the door, landing with gleeful contradiction in front of it. A handful of evenly spread, pea-sized drops. And they flew further each time. Like the blood was leap-frogging towards her. Thrack, thrack, thrack.
She hated gray areas. She hated indecision. She hated the wishy-washy, the fence sitting, the “I don’t know” and the “maybe we’ll see”. So when she felt that feeling, that indecision, erupt in her while she stared at the door, it bothered her in a way she couldn’t pin down.
Part of her wanted the door to spill open. If there was blood behind, let it flood out in a torrent, a geyser, the hallways of Titanic but crimson. Let it wash over her. Let’s get on with the horror, the terror, lets see whats on the other side of fear.
Then there was the fearful, probably more normal part of her that willed the door shut. Forever. Lets run, that part said. Let’s wake up and ignore it and everything will be fine, fine, fine.
Pressure was Brandy’s fault.
Well, maybe fault was too severe, maybe that wasn’t fair but at some point during this relationship Clara had found herself in a war of attrition, of constant retreat, compromise, meeting in the middle–but somehow she still feeling like she was losing ground–redrawing the front lines, a cold war of niceties and I’m trying to make this work.
“Trying to make it work” was a new weapon, a missle, perfectly polished and engineered to make her the bad guy. Clara was always on the wrong foot, fighting a battle she wasn’t sure existed.
If you’re seeing your relationship as a war, maybe it is already lost.
But you’re supposed to fight for your relationship?
Pressure was how you wound up in a car with a whizzing, barely working AC that made it just cool enough to realize how hot you were. Pressure was a “couple’s weekend” that felt aimed, dialed in, ready to strike. Because if you, Clara, weren’t able to embrace couple’s weekend, then you, Clara were the problem. If you didn’t act properly and ooh and ahh and have mind-blowing sex, Clara, then it is you holding us back and you not wanting this to work.
Clara examined these thoughts, corrosive and acidic, and hated the ring of truth she found in them. But indecision, mewling, weak, indecision kept popping up, like the twisting knot of anxiety she felt in crowds. What if she was wrong? What if Brandy wasn’t a Machivellian mastermind, laying traps along the way for Clara to fall into? What if Brandy was indeed trying to “make this work”, and this was her way of showing affection?
Rattle-bump, the car hit a pothole and cruised on.
Maybe it wasn’t so complex. Brandy didn’t have that level of manipulation, did she? Clara glanced sideways, examining her partner in the driver’s seat. She’d once glanced at Brandy with pure, sappy adoration. The little flower tattoos that dotted her left forearm as it hung loosely over the steering wheel. The pinned-back, wispy brown hair and the slightly upturned nose. She always wore battered Lynnard Skynnard t-shirts and a variety of ancient, homemade jean shorts.
Clara thought of Brandy that first summer, swimming together at the pond in their hometown, how they’d stayed up talking by the bonfire, passing a bottle of apple pie moonshine she’d stolen from her uncle’s fridge. Brandy told outlandish story after outlandish story, all designed to make Clara think she was the coolest, toughest girl around and Clara was ready to believe, accept, and urge her on.
It felt like they were the only people alive.
Now, she could feel herself annoyed, agitated, with every aspect of Brandy’s being. The t-shirts had deodorant stains on them. Her legs looked swollen in the jean shorts. She was speaking, always speaking, even now! Clara snapped back from her hateful daze to hear:
“Look babe, cows up ahead. Look at the little baby ones. They’re so cute!”
“Oh wow, yeah.”
Brandy looked at her, eyes wide behind her glasses, and yep, yep, there it fucking was. That look. That hurt, almost toddler-like look of: I was just showing you something nice and you hurt me, I love you and you hurt me, don’t you feel bad?
Clara wondered if she was the toxic one. Interpreting every little thing as a hidden attack. She didn’t want Brandy to be hurt. And if this was a fight, an escalating proxy war until the final relationship-ending battle, she wanted plenty of ammo. She wanted to be able to say: “I apologized for not caring about the cows, I told you I had a headache.”
Clara reached over and placed a comforting hand on her girlfriend’s thigh. “Thanks for this. Really. I just have a really bad headache right now.”
And it was true. She always had a headache after the blood nightmares.
Brandy smiled sincerely and patted her hand. “Nightmares again?”
Fuck. Brandy once again showing what a caring, thoughtful, attentive partner she was. Clara squeezed her hand. “Yeah. This get-away is exactly what I need.”
They separated. Disengaged. Clara was privately gleeful at what she was sure was a strategic victory.
A few minutes passed.
Brandy said: “Babe, babe, look at these little horses! Oh my god, aren’t they so, so cute?”
And Clara wanted to scream.
Brandy oohed and aahed through the hotel lobby, and Clara oohed and aahed right back. The marble floors, the stone fountain in the center. Brandy held up the key to their room, jingling it, and Clara smiled right back.
There was a moment in the hallway, after stepping off the elevator, where Clara tried to save it. A last ditch, hail mary, a drowning hand reaching for salvation.
As they made their way down the carpeted hall, Clara pointed at the dizzying, swirling blue and green design of the carpet and croaked: “Redrum, redrum!”
In the first year of their relationship, they’d tried to watch The Shining on four separate occasions. They had fallen asleep together each time. Since then, the joke was that they were huge fans of the movie and had totally, totally seen it. It was one of Clara’s favorite, tiny things about their relationship. A mutual lie, a private deception, to be wielded at parties and barbeques with great, secretive effect.
Brandy frowned. “Why are you doing that voice?”
“Nevermind.” Clara brushed it off, but there was a feeling that yet another bit of rock had been chiseled away, and it was falling into the dark water below.
They shouldered their way into room 207, through a pinkish, cream-colored door, giggling in a way that felt forced, throwing their bags on the white and black bedspread. Brandy raced around the room, cooing at the little vanilla, appeal-to-everyone interior design choices. The large painting of the Eiffel tower above the bed. The circular glass table near the tiny refrigerator. The twin rose canvases over the jacuzzi tub. There was a tall, fake bamboo tree tucked in the corner that Brandy pointed at.
Clara nodded along, smiling in response to Brandy, but there was a smell.
A lingering, underlying smell that had been bothering her since they’d opened the door.
It was like…
Like dirt. Like in the early days of spring, after the first really warm day and after the first light rain, where the entire earth seemed to exhale a winter’s worth of dirt and wet and rotted wood. Not a bad smell, when it was outside.
That was the baseline, the foundation of it. She tilted her head back and forth, trying to work out what it was exactly. Because there was another element to the smell, to this Yankee-candle concoction of mild disgust.
It was sweat, salt, and grime. It was the smell that came off your body after you skipped a shower for an extra day because you were busy or depressed or just didn’t care, and then by the time the water finally hit you, a potent waft of stink, a cloud of human leaked off your body. It was a fried, sickly smell.
Clara took off her shoes and socks, wondering if the smell was her. She felt sticky and gross after the car ride. A bath sounded nice. Somehow riding in a car for hours was tiring in a way she couldn’t explain. Maybe she was bad at relaxing. Maybe she was bad at idling and simply enjoying the moment, or whatever 15-second social media psychology was pushing these days. Be mindful, you know? Be present, be better. Be optimized, buy more shit, get more followers, get a better job, look better, eat better, attack your flaws like a white blood cell until you are perfect, but wait, nobody is perfect, how dare you try to be perfect.
She was rummaging in her bag when she felt a hand on her shoulder, gently turning her around.
Brandy. Naked and pressing against her, kissing her neck, her lips, hands running up and down Clara’s body.
“I thought,” Brandy said sweetly, “for your birthday we could have a little sex vacation. Nowhere to go, just you and I, naked for three days.”
“That sounds great,” Clara replied automatically. She was hit with another cocktail of mixed emotions. On one hand, yes, it was sweet and nice and lovely and all that. Brandy was trying and Clara did appreciate it.
How do you explain to someone that the sex has started to feel like work. That it feels one-sided. How do you do so without hurting their feelings? She’d tried urging Brandy to be more aggressive, to do things to her, to be the more active participant. But Brandy didn’t seem to have that gear, so every sexual encounter inevitably turned to Clara working to please Brandy.
Just like the birthday trip.
Just like anything they did together. Clara always somehow felt guilty and responsible for Brandy’s feelings in a given moment, even when it was supposed to be about her. There was a sense of having to act right to keep the peace, because if Brandy got upset, it was a long process of stony silence and working to get her to talk and it was just so, so tiring. It had been years of living on a razor’s edge of policing her own thoughts, words, even body language because Brandy would overanalyze and turn the barrel of it on herself, and lately Clara simply didn’t feel like explaining.
How do you even explain.
How do you tell someone that it was a bright summer day but all you can notice are the oil stains on the road, the light smell of your own sweat, that you don’t see the butterflies and bumblebees, you only notice the wasps. That the sun wasn’t a brilliant orb of Vitamin D and shine, it made your eyes hurt and reminded you of the time your dad kicked you out of the house and you simply walked around in the heat, a scared teenager, until your mom had gotten home and let you in.
And really, did Brandy care? As long as the source of misery wasn’t her fault, did she care? Or did she write it off as a “Clara mood” because they happened so, so often? Maybe it was Brandy who was done with the sudden shifts in mood, the inability to enjoy things, the–,
Lost in a swirl of mixed thoughts and emotions, she fell into bed with Brandy, the cool sheets of the hotel touching her skin and for a brief moment, the furious pressure unclenched and she was able to focus on her girlfriend, her body, her breath, what Brandy’s hands were doing and what Clara was doing with hers.
They fell into their usual rhythms, and Clara lost herself in the ease and routine of it all, pausing only briefly because the smell was still bothering her.
Two rapid knocks on the hotel room door woke Clara up. Her eyes sprang open and she detached herself from the tangle of Brandy’s limbs, pulling a robe over herself in the darkness. She was about to open the door when thoughts of axe murderers (redrum!) made her think twice. She stood on tiptoe and peered through the peephole. There was nothing out there but the beige of the hotel wall and the swirling carpet pattern. “Hello?” she asked, feeling increasingly like a horror movie victim. There was no response.
She turned around, planning to wake up Brandy, and froze.
There was someone in the room. In the corner. Standing there, staring at her. She stared back, transfixed, unsure what to do, a horrid surge of adrenaline flooding her body but she was still unable to move. The longer she looked at it, the more it shifted, twisted in her vision, a white face appearing, a black dress, white legs, hands with long fingers like dripping candle wax. The face was vacant, the mouth open–,
Clara curled her fist and charged forward, because what she was seeing was either real, or it wasn’t, and she could feel her mind splintering under the question of “what is it?” If she could touch it, hit it, then it was something tangible, then there was some sense in the world. She lowered her head and collided with it, swinging her fists in looping, tight swings.
The light clicked on. Brandy sat up, rubbing her eyes. “What are you doing?”
Clara glanced at her, then at the thing she was fighting.
It was the tree.
Of course it was the tree.
“It’s okay,” she said slowly, backing away from it. “I had another nightmare.”
“Come back to bed, it’s 3am.” Brandy replied, yawning. She clicked off the light as Clara settled in next to her, heart still thundering in her chest.
“Thank you for protecting us from the tree,” Brandy said. Clara heard the tinge of bemusement in her voice and wanted to strangle her for it. She turned away, burrowing her face into the pillow.
That fucking smell had gotten stronger.
Clara awoke first, a feeling of clustered warmth, something wet and warm on her chest, just below her neck. She opened her eyes and looked down, and the white-faced woman was staring up at her, coiled around her, mouth hanging open, a thin tendril of drool sticking to her collarbone.
A jolt of adrenaline surged through her as the woman shifted slightly and that’s when Clara realized it was Brandy, it had always been Brandy, it was just a leftover from the nightmare last night, there was no pale faced, long-fingered woman.
She looked down at Brandy, curled against her, and felt a surge of warmth towards her. Clara kissed her forehead gently and slid away, letting her sleep. It was easy, like this. When one of them was sleeping. It was easy to look at Brandy, the tangle of her hair, the dimples that appeared as she frowned in her sleep, and feel pure, unmitigated love.
She sat on the end of the bed and rubbed her eyes, glancing back at her girlfriend. It was easy to love something static. Loving a person, though, god. People were nebulous and fickle things, warping and changing, what you did to make them happy ceased to be sharp enough to pierce them, the aspects of your own swirling chaos no longer charming, no longer ensnaring them. Every smooth edge turned to sandpaper and you had to start wondering how much you could tear off each other and still survive.
She got up and made coffee in the little hotel-provided pot, snapping closed the single-serve cup and listening to it gurgle and brew. She kept one eye on the fake tree looming in the corner, half-expecting it to lunge at her. The tree was one thing. The smell was another. And what about the knocking on the door?
The coffee maker hissed and began pouring into the cup as she crossed the room and opened the door, leaning out and looking around. Clara didn’t know exactly what she was looking for; maybe there’d be a note, a housekeeping flier, something.
The smell was in the hallway. Like the odor in an apartment building, the mingled smell of grease and humanity clustered together, all the meals everyone had ever cooked mixed together and settled deep in the walls. The smell overwhelmed her and she went to step back into the room, covering her mouth, when she noticed long, ragged marks on the door. Black and sooty, like cigarette ash, smeared drown from the peephole. She shuddered, thinking of the long fingered woman from her dream.
Clara ducked back into the room, pressing it closed behind her and staring at it like it was going to attack. So what do you do? Do you call the front desk and say someone scratched your door? Do you say that there was knocking last night and a long-fingered ghost? Do you ask to see security cameras?
Clara felt an overwhelming frustration and anger overcome her; she wasn’t even that scared of not being believed. She was more worried about being a bother, about being needy. The anxiety of trying to explain to the front desk, of hearing the pauses in their voice, the agony of confusion, of taking up someone elses time, was somehow more awful than whatever was going on.
The coffee pot beeped and Brandy stirred. Clara took the coffee and tore open the single-serve creamer and dumped it in the mug. She sipped it and glanced around the room, willing herself to calm down.
The tree was jutting out from the corner. About two feet from where it had been.
She cocked her head at it. Set down her coffee. Stepped to it and grabbed it around the stem, like she was grabbing its throat. She lifted it up slightly and put it back in the corner.
Brandy sat up and asked brightly: “What should we do for breakfast?”
Clara felt a headache beginning to boil.
They spent the day out, spending money they didn’t have on indulgent candy shops, taking photos by fountains and buying used books neither of them were going to read. It was performative, syrupy-sweet, and photogenic. There was a desperate eagerness to avoid listening to the death-knell of their relationship, and for a while, Clara let herself be taken by it, and what a wonder, it felt kind of nice.
They ate lunch at an outdoor bistro, and told each other jokes about how this little touristy-town was an upper-middle class paradise, that they were too punk-rock and their tax bracket was too low to be here. Old people milled around them, and that made them feel 20 again, which added to the giddiness.
The cracks that had appeared between them started to seal. Clara could feel it. A loosening, a gentleness, a sense of forgiveness that made it easy to ignore the small, irritating things once again. When Brandy took forever talking to the cashier at the bookstore, or made grandiose, unrealistic plans for them to open one themselves one day, Clara was able to smile and “sure-babe” her way through it.
Maybe the cease-fire could be true peace.
They had too many drinks at dinner, a roaring sports bar that was too loud and too dark, but the fries were greasy and the burgers huge. They walked lazily back to the hotel, bumping into each others shoulders, Brandy drunkenly dragging her by the hand, saying too loudly: “Come on, I need you to fuck me in this stupid fancy hotel.”
Once again they were giggling at the door as Brandy fumbled with the key, but this time it felt natural.
Until Clara noticed the door was now entirely white. And the knob was pristine gold. She swayed slightly, bracing herself against the wall, squeezing her eyes shut. She’d expected the room to stop fucking with her. And the longer they’d been away from it, the easier it got to dismiss the weird shit.
But here it was, back again, ready to slap her in the face, ready to force her to look at it.
“The door is different,” she said weakly.
“Hmm?” Brandy said. The door opened and Brandy burst in, dragging Clara by the arm. The lights were on, did they leave the lights on?
Brandy shoved her onto the bed. Clara raised herself up. The tree was gone. Where was the tree?
Brandy was kissing down her neck, pulling down the straps of her tank top. Clara was looking around the room for the tree. Where the fuck was the tree?
She sat up and kissed Brandy’s shoulder, looking behind her as she did so, a roaring feeling of panic building in her even as she tried to appease her girlfriend.
Why was the jacuzzi bath on?
“Brandy…” she said, but she said it in barely a whisper, she couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe.
“Mmmm Clara,” Brandy muttered in her ear, tongue lashing and flicking.
The bath was full of blood. She could see it reflected in the mirror, churning and frothing in the whirlpool jets.
Brandy shoved her flat on the bed again, pinning her wrists above her head, leering over her, her hair draped over Clara’s face like a curtain.
The smell was back. It was Brandy’s breath. She could smell it so clearly, and it came in waves each time Brandy gasped or moaned. Oh god it was Brandy.
The headache reappeared with a vengeance, pounding gleefully in her temples.
“Brandy, please,” she managed to choke out, but either Brandy didn’t hear or didn’t care, because she slid her way down Clara’s chest, kissing and nibbling, her hands undoing the front of Clara’s jeans.
As Brandy’s hair left her vision, Clara looked up at the ceiling.
The long fingered woman was perched in the corner, clinging to the walls like a spider, staring down at them, her face a hollow scream.
Something broke in Clara. A frenzied, animalistic panic. She seized a handful of Brandy’s hair and hurled her to the side, gathering her feet underneath her and sprinting toward the door, the blood in the bathtub spewing upward, the madness and fear reaching a fever pitch–
And then she was out, the door snapping closed behind her (it was pink again). She ran down the hall, her bare feet padding lightly, but there were steps behind her. She glanced back and the long fingered woman was on all fours, galloping like some maligned creature, mouth hanging open, long hair swinging–
Clara burst through the lobby and out into the hot summer air, the sound of crickets and June bugs filling her ears. Bright neon of the surrounding stores and bars greeted her. A pickup roared past and country music briefly surrounded her.
Something touched her shoulder and she screamed. God damn, did screaming feel good. Pent up fear and rage and frustration released as she tossed her head back and screamed at the sky. It was over, she had been certain if she kept from screaming, the thing couldn’t get her. Oh well, fuck it Clara, scream as loud as you can and then die. It’s fine.
But it was Brandy, of course it was Brandy. In tears. Utterly baffled and confused. Regarding her like she was a rabid animal.
“What is happening?” Brandy asked. A logical, decent question that Clara wanted to know the answer to as well, but goddamn if it didn’t piss her off.
“You didn’t see anything?” Clara said. The bottoms of her feet were covered in sharp, tiny rocks from the parking lot, and she shifted her weight, wincing as they stabbed her.
“No, what, what?!”
“There was…” she opened her mouth to say it. To tell her all of it. Blood in bathtubs and ghost women hanging from the ceiling. But Brandy wasn’t going to believe her. Brandy was going to look for a solution, she would google search a list of therapists, ask an online community for advice, and suggest yoga. She would find something that was meant sincerely but was ultimately pedantic and useless.
Brandy oh Brandy there was something in that room. Something hideous and vile and it wanted to eat me, I could feel it. It wanted to rip me apart and feast on my guts, I could feel malice, you know? Malice that smells like your breath.
“There was a spider. On the ceiling,” she said. “I’m sorry, I panicked.”
Brandy’s eyes widened. Her mouth quivered, and then she burst out into brilliant, loud laughter. “You ran so fast! I think you tore out some of my hair!”
Clara smiled weakly. “I can’t sleep in that room.”
“Hell no! I’m going to throw a fit, see if we can get our money back–,”
Brandy stomped off to win another battle for Clara. Clara didn’t think the hotel was going to give them a refund. Brandy would come back and Clara would ask her to go get their stuff so she didn’t have to go back to the room. Brandy would, and they would go home. She would resent Clara for it, though. The car ride would be stiff, and the cracks that had been recently patched over would reappear, deeper. In a week, or a month, or maybe even on the car ride home, Brandy would snap at her. She’d say something like:
“You’re the problem. You don’t enjoy anything. You always have to be too cool and too aloof to have any fun. It’s exhausting being with you. You suck the life out of everything. You always have rude little comments, you’re always digging at me, or the restaurant, or the hotel room. It’s always something. You’re just miserable, and you’re making me miserable..”
What would Clara do? Would she finally scream: “Yes! Fine! I’m fucking done! LEt me be alone, so I can be as miserable as I want to be, whenever the fuck I feel like it, and I don’t have to worry about you reacting to me like the weather, always pouting and hurt and needing to be reassured. I’m out, I’m done.”
Or would she deflect, argue back, until they wore each other out and some semblance of peace settled between them again?
Would they try and make it work?